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2021 Back to School Shopping Trends

Team InMobi
5 min read
Posted on June 25, 2021

With students expected to finally be back in classrooms this upcoming school year after over a year of distance learning, what will the main back-to-school shopping trends be in 2021? That’s what we wanted to find out. 

In June, we surveyed close to 400 adults across the U.S. using InMobi Pulse, InMobi’s mobile market research solution, asking them about the upcoming school shopping season. Here’s what we uncovered. 

Top Three Insights on Back-To-School Shoppers:  

  1. Parents shopping for school supplies for their children via mobile device will spend more money (48% will spend over $250 on elementary school supplies and 49% will spend more than $750 for college students) than those shopping in person or via desktop.  
  2. Back-to-school shopping will largely begin in July, with students shopping for themselves most likely to wait until last minute. 
  3. College shoppers are just as likely to be online shopping as they are to be partaking in in-store shopping (64% in person, 65% online, 39% via mobile). 

Unpacking What Elementary Back-To-School Shoppers Plan to Spend 

Overall, 78% said they would be buying school supplies for elementary-aged children, although a significant percent of shoppers (67%) are also planning to get clothing and accessories.  

This shows that many parents are back to buying standard back-to-school fare that they were purchasing during the 2019 back-to-school shopping season, as opposed to the hand sanitizer, office supply materials and other unique purchases required to make at-home learning successful and safe. Parents admitted as much, with 57% saying their back-to-school purchases for elementary school-age children will be different this year compared to last year. 

Back-to-school spending is expected to be significant for elementary school students this year. The typical parent with spend an average of between $100 and $500, with 63% of parents falling in this range. Further, 54% said they would be spending more money on back-to-school shopping this year compared to last year. 

When will most of this spending occur? A quarter said they will be shopping for back-to-school supplies in earnest in August, while 29% said they will be shopping in July. 

And where will most of this shopping take place? We found that brick and mortar will reign supreme during the 2021 back-to-school shopping season, with 77% saying they will be shopping in person. Around a third (31%) will be shopping using a mobile device.  

What Do 2021 College Spending Habits Reveal? 

Let’s take a look at what the college back-to-school shopping season will bring. In many ways, college shopping will be very different than elementary school shopping this year. 

For one, 55% said their back-to-school purchases for college-age children will be different this year compared to last year. Of course, while the pandemic accounts for some of this difference, part of it can be chalked up to parents buying supplies for first-time college students who were still in high school last year. 

Additionally, 65% said they would be spending less than $750 on college supplies this year, with 46% saying they would spend under $500. But, one in five said they would be spending over $1,000 on college supplies this year. Overall, 48% said they will spend more money on back-to-school purchases for college-age children this year compared to last year. 

What is being bought? Topping the list here are clothing and accessories (53%), followed by school supplies (52%), books (47%) and electronics like computers (41%). 

Similar to elementary back-to-school shopping, most college shopping will take place in person as well, with 64% saying they will be shopping for back-to-school purchases for college-age children this way. But a lot of college shopping is happening online too – 65% said they would be leveraging e-commerce channels for college purchases, with 39% overall shopping using mobile devices. 

How Brands and Retailers Should Approach 2021 Back-To-School Shopping 

With the back-to-school shopping season about to begin in earnest, what can brands and retailers do to make the most of this time of year? Based on the data from InMobi Pulse, here are some key points to consider. 

  • Kick off campaigns in July – if not earlier. As our data shows, most back-to-school shopping happens in July and August. Shoppers should be well aware of deals and promotions in advance of when they’re actually buying. 

  • Brick and mortar should be an area of focus. Across the board, a lot of back-to-school shopping is likely going to happen in person. For one, that means brands should make sure their brick-and-mortar locations are ready to handle having consumers back in person en masse again. Brands and retailers should also consider tactics that are proven effective at driving footfall, like mobile ads with custom maps to the nearest store location. 
  • Digital channels are still vitally important. Even though consumers are back to buying in person, that doesn’t mean that digital channels should be neglected – far from it, in fact. Many consumers will still shop online, especially those buying for college students. Furthermore, digital advertising is often an ideal way to reach consumers; this is especially true with mobile – not only will time spent on mobile rise in 2021, but the fact that it’s always with consumers makes it an ideal marketing channel. Just because shopping is predominantly going to be in stores, according to Pulse results, the product discovery and browsing behavior should still largely be influenced via digital. 

What are your thoughts on what our data reveals about 2021 back-to-school shopping trends? Let us know on social media! You can reach out to us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or Instagram

Interested in learning about InMobi, our data and our approach to mobile? Reach out today to speak with one of our mobile experts

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